How Generalization And Discrimination Can Affect Mental Health: A Guide

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated November 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The concepts of discrimination and generalization in psychology can be difficult to tackle due to the complexity of their connotation. While discrimination in psychology is generally thought to be related to the concept of classical conditioning, it can also refer to the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

In this article, we will explore the concepts of discrimination, generalization and how psychology and individuals can be affected by both.

Is Discrimination Affecting Your Mental Health?

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning can be defined as a type of conditioning that pairs an automatic response to a specific stimulus. To put it simply, classical conditioning may be a type of learning that happens unconsciously. The most famous example of classical conditioning to many is the theory of Pavlov’s dog.

In 1897, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov is thought to have published his theory and findings on classical conditioning that can hold relevancy in the practices of behavioral therapy to this day. Pavlov is thought to have originally begun with an experiment related to the canine digestive systems. During this time, he noticed the dogs began salivating when seeing the people who would feed them.

Many believe that this sparked him to hypothesize that the reason the dogs were salivating was because they now associated their caretakers with being fed. To test this theory, Pavlov began ringing a bell prior to feeding the dogs. Just as he’d anticipated, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell—regardless of whether or not food was presented to them. 

Though the theory was thought to be originally tested on canines, all humans are generally exposed to forms of classical conditioning throughout the course of our lives. Examples of this can exist in advertising. For example: Ads for sneakers might often feature successful athletes in order to condition people to associate their brand with athletic success. Similarly, ads for fast food might feature delicious looking food to make someone feel hungry for that specific food item. 

What Is Generalization? 

To fully grasp the impact that classical conditioning can have, it can be helpful to review the concept of generalization. Generalization is defined by many as an aspect of classical conditioning that might refer to the brain's ability to generalize similar things—possibly influencing a pre-set response. 

Many believe that the most famous example of generalization came from an experiment performed by behavioral psychologist John Watson in the year 1920. The “Little Albert” experiment is thought to have worked by introducing a 9-month-old child to a white rat and observing their interactions. 

Initially, Little Albert enjoyed playing with the rat. Over time, John Watson would make a loud noise behind Little Albert’s head while he was playing with the rat, which might have startled the baby. After doing this repeatedly, the psychologist found evidence that suggested that Little Albert became scared of the white rat without the presence of the loud noise.

This is not the only application of generalization, however. Some examples of generalization can also evoke positive responses. For example: Seeing your child smile will typically spark joy, as will the smiles of other children. 

What Is Discrimination? 

Discrimination is generally defined as noticing and responding to differences among various objects, ideas or stimuli. Unfortunately, the more commonly understood form of discrimination for many is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Though certain laws exist to protect housing and employment for all in the United States (such as The Civil Rights Act, The Fair Housing Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act), discrimination may still occur.

While major bias can cause harm, less obvious examples of discrimination can be harmful as well. These less obvious displays of discrimination are typically referred to as “microaggressions” by many and may come in the form of being treated with less courtesy or respect based on aspects of a person that aren’t likely to change—such as their appearance, race or age.

According to the American Psychological Association, discrimination is generally formally considered to be a public health issue.

Additionally, research suggests that experiencing discrimination can lead to numerous stress-related health conditions, possibly having both physical and psychological implications.

The often harmful and damaging nature of discrimination can have extreme effects on mental health. Understanding the full range of these experiences can promote a more empathetic and sensitive society. 

If you are living with the negative effects of discrimination, it can be helpful to remember that being discriminated against is generally no fault of your own. In situations where you feel you are being discriminated against, it can be helpful to seek support from those around you, possibly prompting validation and support for your personal experiences.  

What Are Possible Benefits Of Online Therapy When It Comes To Discrimination And Generalization? 

It can be common for the presence of classical conditioning to lead to a variety of challenges throughout life. For example: Conditioning that leads to the development of an intense association can lead to nervousness or stress surrounding an object or situation you’ve been conditioned to fear. Additionally, experiencing major bias or microaggressions based on one’s identity or other defining characteristics can be the result of discrimination and can lead to negative effects on one’s mental and physical health. 

Due to the complexities of generalization and discrimination, it can be best to work with a mental health professional if you feel you are experiencing struggles related to the concept of conditioning—such as discrimination. This can feel overwhelming, however, if you don’t feel comfortable going out or being vulnerable in new environments. For those who experiencing these feelings toward intervention, online therapy might serve as a more affordable alternative to in-person therapy. 

Is Discrimination Affecting Your Mental Health?

Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

In recent studies, experts have found evidence suggesting that online therapy can be highly effective in reducing symptoms of certain mental health conditions, including those that can be associated with depression and anxiety. These can co-occur as a result of discrimination or generalization in some. Additional study suggested that online therapy as a modality can be equally as effective as face-to-face therapeutic intervention. 


Understanding the concept of classical conditioning and how it relates to generalization and discrimination can be helpful in identifying the root causes of certain beliefs and behaviors. If you are experiencing challenges due to related aspects such as unfair treatment, you may benefit from speaking with an online therapist. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.

Explore mental health options online

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started